• Anne Gunning

Struggling to revise for RHS exams? Do these 7 things.

Updated: May 3, 2021

When exams are looming, don’t panic! I can’t guarantee exam success, but these tips will definitely help and hopefully motivate you to get started.

During the pandemic some RHS students have been glad of the distraction of studying for exams while others have found the extra burden of childcare and schooling along with worry about uncertainty ahead too much to cope with, so no headspace for focussed study. Wherever you are up to, there is still time to learn enough to pass.

I am presuming that you have a complete set of notes for the modules you are studying. If not…Houston we have a problem! If you are taking more than 2 modules you may also find it a struggle if you haven’t started yet but let’s not be Nellie negatives - let’s start NOW.

Step 1.

Make a study plan and start revising TODAY.

Starting is the hardest part - We are all guilty of procrastinating. Haul out those books which give you a guilty stab in the heart every time you think about them. You’ll find that they don’t devour you on site - now you have taken that first big step – open the pages and start flicking through the content.

Break each module up into sections and create a heading for each section.

If we look at the Science module (R2101 which is a bigger unit by the way) I would break it up into the following sections:

· Plant types and definitions and examples

· Classification of plants and naming plants

· Cells, tissues and organs

· Leaves including photosynthesis

· Stems

· Roots

· Flowers

· Pollination and fertilisation, fruits

· The seed and seed dispersal

· Water transport from root to atmosphere

· Respiration

There are 11 topics - In order to revise all these in 6 weeks say, you would need to do 2 topics a week, the 6th week will also be used to review everything. Your revision plan would look like this:

week 1

· Plant types and definitions and examples

· Classification of plants and naming plants

week 2

· Cells, tissues and organs overview

· Leaves including photosynthesis

week 3

· Stems

· Roots

week 4

· Flowers

· Pollination and fertilisation. Fruits and dispersal mechanisms

week 5

· The seed and seed dispersal

· Water transport from root to atmosphere

week 6

· Respiration

· Review all topics already covered – old exam papers, summary notes

Studies have shown that people allowed to study a new language for half an hour a day for a week did much better in the test at the end, compared to those who had only 3 hours to study the night before the exam. It is good to ‘sleep’ on information and you will be able to retain more information if you revise every day.

Step 2.

Decide when and where to revise.

Everyone is different – some students will have more prior knowledge or will have already taken some RHS exams and some will swear that they never wrote half their notes it is so long since they looked at them!! So the first question is: Is it better to study in the morning or evening?

There are two types of people – morning people and night owls. It also depends what else you have on during the day. If you are working as a gardener you will be tired due to the physical labour. If you have kids you may not be free until 9pm (and you will also be very tired). The key thing is, you need to be focussed and undisturbed. No interruptions, no social media notifications, nobody chatting to you. If you have a full-on day every day I would advise setting the alarm clock an hour early and doing it then before everyone gets up and while you are fresh. If you prefer the night time to revise then do it then if you are not too tired.

Research shows that there is not that much difference between morning and night time revising. While the afternoon and night are better for applying what you’ve learned and analysing information, the morning is best for remembering facts and numbers according to one research study but there isn’t much in it.

In the examples in step 1 you are doing 2 topics a week. Start revising one topic on Monday and review it until Thursday and then start the other topic on Thursday. Maybe give your weaker topic the extra day – so 4 days on one topic and three days on the other topic.

Where to study – Here is a great article about how to create the perfect study space:

I definitely work better when I have a clutter free desk. Here is my desk – still a little clutter but a nice view.

And don’t use decluttering as a way to procrastinate – box stuff up and sort it after the exams.

Step 3.

Print out the RHS qualification specification (syllabus)

Below is the link to the syllabus:

Have the syllabus sat on your desk alongside your notes so that you can use it as a revision guide. It’s good to be digital and save paper but printing it saves you having to use the PC or laptop and you can put a gratifying 'tick' when you have completed a section. The syllabus is your framework for revision. Sticking to the learning outcomes keeps you focussed on. Horticulture is a very broad subject so you need these clear guidelines. As a tutor I often teach more than the syllabus requires, because to understand some topics you need to see the whole picture. Students ask questions too so we sometimes go ‘off piste’. Sticking to the syllabus helps to illuminate the facts that you need to retain for the exam and filter out the facts that are important, but do not need to be recalled for the exam.

Here is a page from the syllabus showing part of the Plant health module R2103:

The red areas for section 1 are the learning outcomes. This tells you that you need to be able define physical, cultural, chemical and biological control. Then you need to know 2 benefits and 2 limitations of each of these methods of control and also give a named example of each method of control. Health and safety also needs to be considered to minimise damage to the environment and humans.

In your notes you should have several pros and cons of each control method but you only need to remember 2 pros and 2 cons for each.

Step 4.

HOW do you revise and retain information?

Now that you have your plan and you are going to routinely revise every day, how do you get it to stick?

There has been much written about different learning styles – some learners are more hands on than others, some like audio, some like pictures and charts and others learn well just from reading though notes. Different things work for different people. My advice would be to vary the learning methods and here are a few different ways to learn a topic:

If we refer to the learning outcomes in step 3:

· Read through your notes which define the different methods of pest, disease and weed control and then look at the syllabus and answer the questions in the indicative column. The quickest way is to ''think'' the answers in your head and then check notes but some people will prefer to write the answers.

· A summary table would work very well for this learning outcome (see step 3). You will know many more examples of different methods of control but the table below focuses on the learning outcomes in the syllabus only and focuses on one named control method with an example and then lists 2 benefits and 2 limitations. If you have copious notes you need to summarise and condense your notes. Here's 2 examples:

· Some students like to highlight key words in their notes which is a good way to revise if you have already summarised your notes. It doesn’t work if you have half the page highlighted. Similarly, some students like to rewrite their notes. If it works for you, do it, but I would condense the notes at the same time and try to create comparison tables and bullet points referring all the time to the syllabus.

· Sticky notes. If you are busy at work or looking after family you will get little snippets of time during the day when you could learn a difficult term or plant name. If you have revised for an hour in the morning then write down some key words/sentences that you want to remember on sticky notes and learn them throughout the day – on the commute to work, while making a meal, on the back of the toilet door!!

· Games. Games are great for students learning in class or if you have a study group, as you can make them to teach others. You could make matching cards with a plant name on one and a picture of a plant on another. Pictured below is one technique I use for definitions. I fold a piece of A4 paper in half and cut flaps with the answers underneath. These are nice and portable too and can be kept in your pocket throughout the day to refer to. Below is an example for design principles:

· A good way to summarise and condense a topic after reading is to draw a mind map / poster / spider diagram (I never know which term is correct) to make sure you have noted the key points. This one below is a summary of site survey requirements for R2111.

· A mnemonic is an instructional strategy designed to help students improve their memory of important information. This technique connects new learning to prior knowledge. The basic types of mnemonic strategies rely on the use of key words, rhyming words, or acronyms.

For example, a recent post on the Facebook page ‘RHS Exams Study Group’ shared the following acronym for remembering the principles of design and design terms used for R2111. (I hope you don’t mind me sharing this)


Rhythm / repetition

Unity / cohesion




Scale / proportion


· Flash cards. Summarise key information on these and take them everywhere you go so you can learn on the move.

· Apps. kahout and Quizlet are great apps on mobile phones

Step 5.

Do past papers and make up questions

I could have included this in step 4 but it is so important, it has it’s own step. Past papers are available here:

There is a great facebook group (RHS Exams Study Group) which students can join and in the files section they have past exam papers. This is a great group where information is shared, questions discussed and support and encouragement is given.

I would recommend printing out past papers when you print out the syllabus because you can quickly flick through them to find questions relevant to the topic you are studying. After studying a topic for a few days do all relevant questions at the end and then read the examiners comments.

Examiners comments

Examiners comments are really helpful and will help enormously with revision and learning.

If you have someone to study with, set each other questions – this is a great way to learn. Discussion is a way to embed and analyse information.

After you have revised all the topics for a module do a whole RHS past paper under timed conditions so you know how fast you have to write and how long to spend on each question. Practising full papers will prepare you for the real thing.

Step 6.

Read the question carefully

I am sure you have all heard this before! The RHS uses certain terms which require different detail of answer. These are some common exam terms and these are the definitions I give to my students.

Define – Give the meaning of an idea or concept

State – Give the relevant points briefly. The main points, not the lesser ones.

List – Short itemised bullet points. No detail. Single words or phrases.

Describe – Give details of processes, properties, appearance, function etc. What/how/why/when. Think of it as the next step on from list and state

Distinct – Often asks for distinct examples which means the examples have different characteristics or are from different genera if asking for plant names. E.g. if asking for distinct Winter interest trees Acer griseum and Acer davidii are NOT distinct

Compare – put the 2 things side by side and see their similarities AND differences

Contrast – Emphasise the difference between 2 things


· Diagrams and tables can replace detailed descriptions and save time.

· Everyone has their own way of working through the exam paper but this works well: Go through every question in order and answer as much as you can. If you come across a tricky one, leave it and continue and then go back to the tricky one at the end. That way you won’t waste time.

· Writing something is better than writing nothing as you may get half a mark or even more. Common sense is sometimes all that is needed.

· Look at how many marks are awarded so you give enough information in the answer. 4 marks = 4 different answers or 4 details

· If you find a question hard to understand or answer don’t dwell on it, get on with the others!

So read the question carefully and see how many marks are awarded. If the questions asks you to list 4 examples, do not list 5 as there is no point.

Step 7.

Practical preparation for the exam

Make sure your pens write easily and don’t smudge.

Take ID with you if the exam venue has requested this. I forgot mine when I did my level 3 exams and was a nervous wreck by the time I sat down to take the exam.

Take pencils, rubber and a ruler. I like a ruler because I always find it difficult to imagine spacing distances for vegetables etc. unless I can see how long a centimetre is. (maybe that’s just me though!!)

Leave plenty of time to get to the exam venue so you are not stressed by slow traffic or finding a parking space. Some of my students stay overnight in a nearby hotel.

Get plenty of sleep the night before – being over tired will not help you do your best.

Take a watch as you will not have your phone and you can plan your time better.

Be clear what is involved in the exam: where and when it will take place, how much time is allowed, and how many questions you need to answer. For example R2111 is 10 questions in 80 minutes, while R2112 is 6 questions in 50 minutes.

2020 and 2021 venues will have Covid restrictions in place so check beforehand where you need to go and if you need a mask. Take hand sanitiser and your own drink with you.

And finally…

You only need 50% to pass so you can get half wrong and still pass. You can always retake the exam. I know it means a lot to you as you are all passionate about gardening - you would not be putting yourself through these exams if you weren’t committed to horticulture. Someone once said to me ‘Don’t get stressed – it’s only gardening’ - I could have stabbed them in the eye with my secateurs.

Seriously though, with the world like it is at the moment there are worse things that can happen compared to failing an exam. But you won’t fail – think positive, Good luck and START NOW.

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